Checkmate! But the game’s not over…

I always used to think that some people lived in a special world of their own. A world reserved for legends, heroes and Nobel brains. As a little girl, I imagined that there was also a special world inhabited by chess champions. But then, in 1997, the IBM supercomputer “Deep Blue” inflicted a crushing defeat on world champion Garry Kasparov. After that, chess lost its appeal for me: it was clear that the outcome of contests between humans and machines, in the future, would be a foregone conclusion, and always end the same way. But, worst of all, it seemed that people had no further contribution to make to the world of chess.

But then the advent of freestyle tournaments – where teams of human and digital players, in different combinations, compete with one another – showed just how far from the truth this was. In 2005, a hybrid team of men and machines defeated the computer “Idra”, which was the most powerful computer of its time (like “Deep Blue”, it was developed specifically for chess). But the real surprise was that the winners were two amateur players helped only by three not particularly powerful laptops. Through their ability to manipulate and manage the computers, to analyse in depth every single move, they managed to effectively counter the superiority of the great masters and the superior calculating capacity possessed by the artificial intelligence of the computer. It was a remarkable result, even though the most amazing thing was that this was not so much a victory of men over machines as a demonstration of the fact that when men and machines work together they can beat any computer, or human, that is working alone. The real challenge, therefore, is not to fight with machines, but together with them. And it is not only this anecdote from the chess world that tells us this.

The creation of the first steam engine, followed by the discovery of electricity, each triggered a cascade of innovations, revolutionizing people’s way of life and radically increasing the productivity of manufacturing enterprises. But for such revolutionary changes to come about, it took decades following the invention itself, decades during which men had to learn how to apply the technology and redesign their factories. In short, it was men who were the architects of change: technology alone is not enough to change the course of destiny.

The leading technology of our times is, of course, the computer. And in order to boost its potential, today’s managers, like those of the past, are having to reinvent business organisations and the economic system. And, considering that productivity has reached unprecedented levels, they are clearly making a good job of it. So does this mean we have nothing to fear? No. Recent years have brought the creation of enormous wealth but, for most of us Italians, levels of income, as well as employment, have plunged. This is the great divide between wealth and work. Millions of people, unsurprisingly, feel betrayed by progress, but many of them fail to appreciate the fundamental causes of their situation. It is true that technology is advancing rapidly and leaving more and more people behind. After all, today we can take a routine job, encode it into a series of instructions readable by a machine, and replicate it a million times. There are numerous situations that illustrate this new economy. For example, large retail chains promote online purchasing, while shop assistants find themselves out of work. Alongside this microcosm we find others, in services, software, manufacturing, and so on. Men are competing with machines and a lot of them are coming off worse.

But how do we go about creating shared wealth? The answer is not to try to slow down technology, but to improve the interface between humans and machines. How? By introducing a human into the technological process: in other words, by considering not only how a computer can solve a given problem, but also the solution that a human can contribute. This is the only way of reducing the current friction between men and machines, because this friction actually has more impact than the power of either the man or the machine in determining its overall capacity. This is why two amateurs and a few laptops were able to beat a supercomputer and a master chess player.